Music of the People

Growing up, folk music was the only sound around. My favorite cassette tape was the one with “Home on the Range,” we had a CD of American folk songs that was the only thing (other than Harry Potter audiobooks) that would get played on the 24 hour drive to Florida, and the Pete Seeger documentary was mandatory viewing. In the true tradition of folk music, though, I learned most everything live. From singing with a crowd, listening to our neighborhood band’s sets, or hearing my mom sing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” each night when she brushed my teeth, folk music was part of my culture. I remember being terrified of subways, because of Charlie who “never returned” from the MTA, in awe of John Henry, “the steel-driving man,” and for some strange reason — finding the tragic story of Clementine who was “lost and gone forever” hilarious. I think it was so shocking that I thought that it couldn’t possibly be real?

As many of us are prone to with our home culture, I didn’t fully appreciate it. You can bet that I turned to pop radio as soon as I could get my hands on it. Soon, I was spending copious amounts of time on YouTube, then Pandora, and finally Spotify as streaming gave me total control.

In recent years, though, I’ve increasingly missed music as I grew up with it — sung out loud together with guitars, banjos, washtub basses, or nothing at all. I have also more fully appreciated how folk music is the music of the people. It’s our shared history, our collective struggle, and our evolution.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to go the Montana Folk Festival in Butte (and I camped — hence the late Climate Culture — apologies!). I listened to music, canvassed on climate change, and found myself thinking once again about the need for art that brings us together to meet this moment. Butte is a particularly potent setting for the festival considering its own history of abundance, exploitation, and collective struggle. Butte was once the most productive mining district in the world, and now it is home to the nation’s largest Superfund site. Along the way, it became a diverse hotbed of union organizing — a community that kept coming together under dire (and deadly) circumstances to demand better. That’s what folk music is all about.

And won’t that be what the fight against climate change will be all about too? Fossil fuel companies are exploiting each and every one of us. The stakes could not be higher. It is time for all of us to come together. For a few moments this past weekend, dancing to the music of the people (shoutout to Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole and Plena Es), I felt that. Not only did it feel good, but that’s how we win. I hope that as the climate continues to crumble, we’ll start to share folk music for the new generation. Who are our Charlie’s, John Henry’s, and Clementines? What is the music that will bring us together? What is folk music in the age of climate collapse?

Because folk music is meant to be shared, I’ll suggest one idea of what climate folk music could look like. I work on climate change, because I want to protect the seasons that make life in my home possible. And there’s a song for that! Adirondack Blue by Roy Hurd.

Above all, thank you to the people of Butte — I hope to keep learning from you and from the music of the people!




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